Gala is the biggest musical theatre extravaganza in the CUMTS calendarPaul Ashley with permission for Varsity

It’s two weeks until the opening night of Cambridge University Musical Theatre Society’s Gala and in walks Jake Solway, unexpectedly beaming despite the circumstances. Two weeks in Cambridge feels like two days, so forgive me for my surprise. Annabel King follows, laden with bags full of sheet music. “It’s the band call today,” she explains. “And I think my arms are going to drop off.” Maybe it’s the combination of the eternal optimist in Solway and the realism of King, but I can already tell these two are a musical match made in heaven.

Gala is the biggest musical theatre extravaganza in the CUMTS calendar, a week five ADC Lateshow and an opportunity for Cambridge’s finest performers to participate in a cabaret-style night, complete with orchestra, glitz and glamour. It is renowned for being a colossal commitment, particularly for those musically involved. King may or may not have appeared as though her blood pressure was in the high hundreds.

“Gala is the biggest musical theatre extravaganza in the CUMTS calendar”

Despite the demanding nature of Gala night, the show could not be in safer hands. King previously musical directed the 2023 CUADC/Footlights Panto Dick Whittington and his Cat, where Solway made his Cambridge arranging debut with its student-written score. “I have more of an expectation as to what being an MD really is now. We are in a prominent position, figuratively and literally taking centre stage,” King tells me.

“I love Panto. My degree didn’t love Panto, but I certainly did,” Solway contributed.

“Is it the Panto baton?” suggests King.

“Of course it is the Panto baton,” Solway replies.

“The lucky baton is essential for any conductor,” they inform me. Safe to say, they’re starting to fit some of the crazy conductor stereotypes.

“Arranging Gala has been a tall order,” Solway tells me. The musical team consisting of King, Solway, Bolin Dai, Jonathan Parapadakis and Matthew Mayes, were given the set list in early December to start arranging immediately. “The hardest part is writing in dance breaks or cuts,” he tells me. “They can often sound messy or out of place. Where the arranger gets real freedom is the overture.”

“Arranging Gala has been a tall order”

With the Gala setlist a secret until opening night, it is tradition for the overture to consist of other songs from the musicals about to be sung. Audiences go wild, drunken heckling is commonplace and I heard there was even some vomit involved last year. “I am an excellent incidental writer and overture extraordinaire,” he jokingly boasts. “It will be an overture like no other.”

On a more practical note, King leads most of the organisation, heavily involved on an administrative level with creative director/head choreographer Gina Stock and director Mia Grant. “I am in awe of Gina and Mia, whose creative visions I am inspired by and without whom the show would not go on. Preparing is a very long process and there are aspects I never realised. The difference between Assistant Musical Directing and MD-ing is huge.”

King turns up to as many rehearsals as the cast, records herself singing every individual harmony line, makes backing tracks for choreographers and accompanies most rehearsals. “Having such a great team of experienced musicians around me has really helped manage the stress of musical directing a large-scale, non student-written show. Jonathan Parapadakis, our other orchestrator, did Gala last year so already has the experience under his belt.”

It makes sense that this is a team undertaking; collaboration is a key word for this year’s Gala with Bolin Dai, the Assistant Musical Director, attending rehearsals even in King’s absence. Dai has a wealth of experience herself, Musical Directing another notoriously challenging musical Sunday in the Park with George with Parapadakis at the ADC last year.

There is a sense of camaraderie as King and Solway describe the fantastic plethora of musicians forming the band. Solway animatedly lets me know that “Some of the band are playing 10 instruments. It is absolutely insane.” An aspect unique to Gala is that the orchestra is located front and centre for all to see. King winces slightly as she tells me this: “It scares me slightly but it’s also very exciting to feel the same as the cast looking out to the audience. They really do hear everything in the auditorium. It does mean I get to perform. Conducting is a kind of choreography itself and, who knows, maybe there will be a surprise Annabel-shaped performance…”


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“And there are two trombones. Who has two trombones? It’s going to be brilliant.” By this point, I am beginning to get the impression that Solway’s night out might still be in his system.

Whispering at Solway to stop talking, King gave me one last thought to end on. “Gala is a collection of the most talented cast and musicians in Cambridge. Come find out yourselves — I promise, you won’t be disappointed.”